Our first interview is with Margaret Chin, a community organizer, affordable housing advocate and former teacher. This is the fourth time she’s run for the City Council. We discussed a range of issues last week in her modest campaign headquarters in Chinatown. She shared her views on Chinatown development, the redevelopment of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, a variety of transportation issues and how she feels about Councilman Gerson’s unexpected decision to jump into the race.
We want the candidates to be able to discuss the issues important in the 1st District fully. For this reason, the interview is largely unedited – we have simply removed extraneous phrases and streamlined the questions. Read the entire Q & A after the jump. For more information on Chin and the 1st District, see:
TLD: What are your feelings about the work of the Chinatown Working Group, the organization trying to formulate a long-range plan for the neighborhood? How did you feel about the recent town hall meeting the group held?
Margaret Chin: It is a good way of getting people together… whether it’s going to solve all of the problems, I don’t think so. But at least get the issues out and that’s why the town hall meeting, the way I see it, is important because then whatever has been discussed, it’s open to the public. It’s transparent. People can add to it or if they disagree with it… it’s a way for people to get involved and participate. That’s the most important point and that’s why you saw so many people at the meeting, giving up their own personal time… Of course you could do better, you could do more but at least something is being done.
TLD: When it comes to the issues facing Chinatown, how do you feel about Councilman Gerson’s role as a community leader?
Chin: When you look at a lot of the issues we see Alan talking about – what I see is actually the community, the activists in the community pushing and getting the issue out there and getting him to be responsive. And that’s not the kind of council member I want to be. The kind of council member I want to be is that I’m going to be activating my community and working with them on an issue. So it’s the activism and it’s getting things done together, so things don’t get dragged on and on and on.
TLD: How would you play a more active role?
Chin: Getting information from the city and getting that information right to the community or vice versa, so the community can see our office and myself as someone they can work with very closely, so that information gets filtered down quickly. Because even Chatham Square, it took how many months before a hearing was called and that was because we pushed for a hearing. I organized a rally, demonstration in the depths of winter and we were pushing for a hearing. We finally got something in February.
TLD: What’s your reaction to the city’s decision to delay the Chatham Square reconfiguration?:
Chin: It’s a good thing. People are happy about it. We finally got them to listen to us, that this is not the best way to do it, and DOT needs to start sitting down and work with the community, find some alternative or better way of dealing with the situation.
TLD: What do you think should be done to make Chatham Square safer and to make it a more efficient intersection?
Chin: With Chatham Square I don’t think they really need to dig it all up again because, the issue of Park Row, we’ve got to fight to get that open again, because right now we have traffic going in there, you have buses. So let’s open it up. What was the hesitation, because that’s the one that’s really creating all the bottleneck and all the congestion. But there is also a larger transportation issue that affects Chatham Square that they’re not looking at… What’s happening in Lower Manhattan? You have all the street closures… and one of the things we have suffered with for over 20 years is to have the Verrazano Bridge one way toll, where you have all these trucks and cars… and that traffic has hurt Chinatown, it’s hurt Soho, Tribeca. So there are other issues they need to look at, and we need to get it fixed.
TLD: Do you believe the city’s Department of Transportation is unresponsive to the concerns of residents?
Chin: I think that they have to really communicate more and come down and work with the community because the way I see them doing it is they think their idea is the best idea. And sometimes they do take bits and pieces the community has suggested… but it’s not fully comprehensive… so there needs to be fuller discussion. You can’t just come and do a presentation and expect everyone to know what’s going on and get it. People need time to digest and gather their thoughts on how it affects them and how it affects the community. So there are some very good people at DOT and they understand where we’re coming from. They need to have a different mindset, orientation. It needs to come from the head of their department and the city that their job should be to help people, pedestrians, safely cross the street, not just traffic flow. Everything is traffic flow… ‘we don’t want any congestion, we don’t want any tie up.’ But their job should really be to help people cross the street safely.
TLD: How do you feel overall about the Bloomberg administration’s transportation policies?
Chin: New York City is congested, it’s very busy and there’s a lot of stuff happening. You cannot expect a model that works in some other city to work here. For example, what they did with Grand Street. Grand Street cuts across many different neighborhoods. You have different needs and you have different usage, and no consultation. Just an item on the community board agenda… That bike lane (between Chrystie and Canal) is the stupidest thing, that’s what people in the community say. It just created a lot of congestion. But the city says ‘we think it’s a good idea. We just think people will get used to it.’ Wait a minute. You can’t just impose that on a community. Then the burden is on us to prove it’s unfair. We have to get volunteers to clock how many bicycles go through.
TLD: What would you do to make sure constituents are getting the services they need from your office?
Chin: The way I look at constituent service, we are already doing it right now in my campaign. Every Wednesday from 2-7 we have volunteers here who can help people fill out applications, letters. And on Saturday I have a legal clinic that can help, and we have actually helped a lot of residents already… anything from small claims courts to housing cases. So constituent service should also be available on weekends and evenings. And that is something I will implement in my office, because people should not have to take off work to get help or get information. The other thing about constituent service is that I want to have more regular community meetings where people can get information. I was just at a community rally earlier. We were talking about cutting back the budget of the community boards. Community boards are the front line of democracy… I want to improve upon it, have more translation, more information available, so people can utilize it a lot more… They haven’t gotten an increase in 19 years… people can not just call 311, but that’s what he’s (Bloomberg) pushing. ‘Call 311, your problem will be solved.’
TLD: What’s your position on quality of life issues, especially the disagreements that sometimes erupt between residents and restaurant/bar owners?
Chin: If I’m a person living there (near a bar) I have to go to work the next day, I need my sleep. So for a business owner, they’ve got to be a good neighbor. They’ve got to figure out a way of minimizing the noise and, when people are asked to do it, they do it. I was at a community board meeting last night, and this was a sidewalk committee… the community board tried to work with them. There are certain requirements. No one’s checking. They don’t follow the rules. And if someone complains, then they get called in. This is the community board’s job. They’re doing a lot.
TLD: Do you believe members of the community boards should be elected, rather than appointed by the
Chin: No. I think the volunteerism is important. But I do see a need for more resources.
TLD: Once again, the community is trying to reach a consensus about how to develop the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area. Some residents in the Grand Street Co-ops have expressed fears that concentrating exclusively on lower income housing in SPURA, could have a detrimental impact on property values. What’s your position on SPURA?
Chin: Their property values are not going to decrease. That is incorrect information. That area needs to be developed. Housing was torn down 40 years ago, a promise was made by the government that affordable housing was going to be built. Never happened in 40 years. There are a lot of sites there. Everyone should come back to the table. There needs to be housing there. There needs to be some commercial space there. We could have some different income levels but you’ve got to have some low income, you’ve got to have some moderate income. Luxury – I would have to look at because all of these luxury condos that have gone up in the last couple years in that area. Housing needs to be there. Maybe some housing for special needs population, the disabled population. So that, when you balance, you make sure there is an opportunity to meet needs that haven’t been met.
TLD: What do you think of the notion that housing in SPURA should be one-third low income, one-third middle income and one-third market rate?
Chin: I would really have to take a look at that, whether it’s the most appropriate way of dividing it, because, as I said, medium income, and the luxury housing that’s developed in the last couple of years… one-third, one -third, one-third is very arbitrary.
TLD: Grand Street residents have said there’s already more low income housing in the area than most other neighborhoods of Manhattan.
Chin: I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, because the housing that’s surrounding them is not all public housing. And even in public housing now there are a lot of working families living there because they have no other option. The Section 8 housing is not all low income either… so the perception should not be that it’s all low income. The fact is that New York City is very condensed. The Lower East Side has a history of accommodating immigrants and working families. We should not exclude people. The more people we have living down here that we can accommodate, the community will continue to grow and be vibrant. There are a lot of people who are homeless. Create some opportunity where maybe someone in public housing can purchase a home. Why be so negative and afraid. Why not be open and use this as an opportunity to create the kind of community, the kind of diversity New York City is all about. Everybody’s family is all immigrants. So sometimes to focus all the time on the negative stuff, we lose sight of the opportunity that we could really create something great.
TLD: The last time you ran for this City Council seat, three Chinese candidates split the vote in Chinatown. This time, there are two Asian candidates: you and P.J. Kim, who’s Korean. Are you concerned that the vote will be fragmented again?
Chin: I grew up here. I work here. A lot of people know me, and I want to be able to capture as many votes here as I can. But my candidacy is not just Chinatown… My experience cuts across the whole district. I have a background in education. I was a public school teacher. I was a college administrator. I work in an affordable housing program, not just in the non profit I work for but also I serve on boards – Association of Labor and Housing Development. So on the affordable housing issue my work has been citywide… I’m very strong on tenant issues. I have a lot of support among parent leaders, with education issues, and that cuts across the whole district… So I really feel that I’m a strong candidate and I’m the only experienced one who can really bring everyone together. It’s like I’ve been at this for so many years, over 30 years. I served on the community board myself… when I was in Community Board 3, I chaired the transportation committee. So my life long experience has been in organizing and I will be an active city council member. Some of the other candidates have a ways to go. They need to get involved more and do some more practice, you know.
TLD: Do you support term limits and how do you feel about Councilman Gerson’s decision to vote to extend term limits this year?
Chin: I’ve always supported term limits because I think it’s important to have fresh ideas, new people to come in to really energize the system. I think Alan was wrong and I was very disappointed with him… because all of us thought he was going to push for having a referendum and that’s what he led us to believe. That was even before he proposed the amendment. So, look, if it wasn’t for term limits Alan wouldn’t have been there either. There was another city council member before who was very strong, so he got in because of term limits, and he was also working towards that idea, that his term was the last term. And we had discussions together. I didn’t challenge him in 2005, understanding that, look, we have a lot of work to do, we need to help people in the community after 9/11. 2009 will be an open seat and we tried to work together and, to the point, I was working on getting him to support me. So it’s unfortunate that he should decide to go the other way and supported the mayor. And you know, that’s not right Alan. So that’s why I decided to continue the race. I started two years ago and I’m not going to stop.